The other day I had the chance to tag along with what might have looked like just a bunch of loosely-supervised youngsters wandering about in the countryside. It happened to be one of the most impressive social inclusion projects I've ever seen.
There were half a dozen young people in care, aged between about 13 and 19 - at least one of them in a residential home, the others having varied histories with foster carers. Through the youth council and the museums service they were involved in a week-long programme of events exploring how the Norfolk countryside has changed as a consequence or cause of social change.
The project began last Monday with the participants viewing a series of dioramas at Norwich Museum, which represent recognisable Norfolk scenes. None of the dioramas features any human beings. One of them shows the wildlife on the marshland around the coast at Blakeney, a village which has grown around a number of cottages built from the local flint.
Visiting Blakeney themselves, the young people spent time reflecting on the kinds of people who would have lived there in the past, their livelihoods based on fishing; and on the kinds of people who live there now (the house prices are an indicator of the now-classic scenario in which less-affluent local people who have looked after their local environment for centuries are abruptly priced out of their area). I understand that there is little or no fishing based in Blakeney now, but there is a tourist industry based on seal-watching from nearby Blakeney Point. There are insights here about human involvement in the changing environment, which were readily absorbed and discussed by the young participants through the week.
Another of the dioramas features a 'loke', which is a regional term for a country lane enclosed on both sides by vegetation. Lokes would have been used heavily over the centuries, often marking parish boundaries, and might well have sunk gradually below the level of adjacent fields.
While I was there on Thursday, two or three geocaches were traced in lokes, and I was struck by the young people's appetite for knowledge about wildlife and landscape even while a series of treasure-hunting games was being played. When I was their age, me and my mates would have been relentless in our determination to disrupt the entire process, and I for one would have learned nothing.
All the same, I found the ease with which they mastered global positioning technology too much of a contrast with the difficulties these young people have faced and will continue to face in locating themselves. Unlike their settled peers, they are ceaselessly navigating through many uncertainties.
The subtle excellence of this project is worth dwelling on, at the start of national adoption week. They're still too rare, but you can find initiatives like this in the public sector - it might be through sports and leisure, museums, libraries, youth services or wherever - often with little recognition and against excessive management constraints. It takes exceptional people working in partnership with other committed individuals, all well beyond the call of duty, to bend those constraints and pull off this kind of programme. The benefits to the young people are almost tangible, but try telling that to the politicians and accountants.
As in previous work where I've been talking to young people looked after, I was struck by their easy readiness to talk among themselves (even though in most cases they had not met before) about the experience of being looked after. Much of the time they feel so different to other kids and cannot share that experience, so these occasions are particularly valuable, liked cached treasure.
It was enchanting to listen in on a conversation about globalisation and capitalism as we took our lunch on benches in a church porch (in modest reference to the protest outside St Paul's). And it's striking how sensitive they are to how others might be feeling. Mainly towards the other youngsters around them, but also to the adults. As soon as I joined them in the minibus I was offered sweets and as we wandered round I was twice asked by one lad I'd barely met 'You alright Kevin?' Yes, I most definitely was. I don't earn much doing what I do, but I have some extraordinary privileges.